Monday, October 31, 2011

Fliers Face Tricks Not Treats This Past Weekend. What To Do When The Planes Aren't Flying

With a freak snowstorm delaying and/or cancelling flights into New York City, Philadelphia and other East Coast gateways; and strikes at Air France and Quantas stranding passengers abroad, it was, to put it politely a #%@% up weekend to fly.

What could travelers have done to make their travels more efficient? Very little frankly. With the scope of the disruptions no amount of fuming at airport counters would have helped. That's not to say there's nothing to do when these types of incidents occur. Some advice:
  • Try, try again: Passengers who need to reschedule flights after cancelled flights should realize that the first option they're offered is usually not the only option. With so many passengers to rebook, the situation will be a fluid one, with fliers sometimes opting to drive to get to their destination or cancelling altogether. So if you get re-booked on a lousy flight, say "Thanks so much" to the airline worker, hang up and call back in 40 minutes. It may take several tries, but persistent travelers often get the flights they want in the end.
  • Be in contact with your airline before you head to the airport: Better to be stranded at home than in a drafty terminal, right? If the "mother of all storms" is heading towards your gateway, do yourself a favor and see if you can wait it out at home.
  • Look to your airline's partners: This can be especially useful when traveling abroad. If the airline you're booked on is engaged in a labor dispute, see if you can transfer your ticket to one of its partner airlines.
  • Be nice: Though you'll often get faster service over the internet or on the phone, being pleasant to the harried folks behind the counter may bring rewards. Ask nicely and you may receive food vouchers for airport snacks, and even special consideration when it comes to re-booking.
Finally, its a good idea to consider weather patterns when buying tickets. Google Flights now has a widget allowing those considering flights with transfers to eliminate certain airports (like snowy Denver) from consideration. Hey, we just got hit with a massive snowstorm in October--might be a good idea to take weather into account this winter!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Bus Trips

There may be no Santa Claus, Virginia, but there is definitely such a thing as a free ride!

Once again, the mighty Megabus is launching new routes and supporting the announcement with a massive giveaway: some 10,000 free seats to and from Atlanta.

Travelers who use the discount code ATL10K will get the freebie for travel between Nov 15 and December 16 between Atlanta and the following southern cities: Birmingham, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Gainsville, Jacksonville, Knoxville, Memphis, Mobile, Montgomery, Nashville, and Orlando.

Head quickly to Megabus site, as these giveaways do disappear quickly.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Playing Chicken at the Rental Car Counter

(Image by Torley)
I'm one of those over-prepared geeks who knows that I'll be getting useable insurance from both my credit card and my personal auto insurance when I rent a car. (Yes, I've read the fine print). But I still get nervous turning down the collision damage waiver, especially after the clerk fixes me with a beady stare and says "Are you absolutely sure? You realize if you get into an accident, you could be on the hook for the lost revenue from the car while its being repaired."

Okay, am I sure?

What I'm sure about is that its the clerks job to frighten me into buying insurance that I don't need. That act can add a whopping $30 a day to the cost of the rental car. So its a major source of profit for those car rental companies.

But on the other hand, the agent is right to ask because sometimes, sometimes, travelers think they're covered when they're not. And today eminent travel expert Ed Perkins has posted a darn good piece on which card covers what (and which leave travelers on the hook).

The most invidious gotcha? You rent a car with your credit card, but then add on something small--maybe the rental of a GPS unit--and pay for it in cash. And that action nullifies the coverage you got with your credit credit card because you didn't pay for the entire rental with the credit card.

I won't give away more of Ed's tips. Instead, click here to read this most helpful article.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Safaris--And Other African Adventures--Within Reach

A "perfect storm" of circumstances converged this month making trips to Africa more affordable, and more convenient, than they have been in quite some time.

Beginning tonight at midnight, South African Airways will be throwing a jaw-dropper of a sale with round-trip flights to a number of African gateways starting at just $550. Alas, you'll pay almost double that once fuel surcharges and taxes are factored in, but still its much less than you would have paid just a week ago. Here's how it breaks down:
  • $1034--New York (JFK) to Johannesburg
  • $1071--JFK to Cape Town
  • $1111--JFK to Dakar (Senegal)
  • $1151--JFK to Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth
  • $1342--JFK to Nairobi (Kenya)
  • $1376--JFK to Livingstone (Zambia)
  • $1381--JFK to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe)
  • $1396--JFK to Entebbe (Uganda)
  • $1384--JFK to Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania)
Tickets must be purchased by Nov 15 for travel between  Nov 1 and Dec 9; and Jan 15 through Mar 31, 2012. Sorry, there are no add-on fares from other US cities, but these prices are so low, it may well make sense to fly into New York on another airline to snag them here. Flights are in the morning, so a red eye would work. And happily, these flights get into Johannesburg in the morning (a new development), meaning that folks flying to other parts of Africa won't have to spend the night in Jo'Burg, as they had to do in the past when flying in from the States. Service from JFK to Johannesburg is now non-stop--another big plus.

I was alerted to these flights by Ken Heiber of 2Afrika and he told me that travelers can book these fares through him, with no additional commission charged (or one can go directly to the airline).

Safaris/Vacation Packages

Heiber is using the announcement of these flights to launch some new, and very well-priced, vacation packages to Africa. A South African expert, he has a deep knowledge of the market; over the years, I've only heard good reports of his programs. Among his many offerings, here are two that caught my eye:
  • 6 Nights in Cape Town for $1799: This package includes flights, 6-nights at a nice waterfront hotel, daily breakfasts, transfers to and from the airport in Cape Town and all taxes and surcharges.
  • 6 Night Kenyan Safari for $2999: Again, the flight from the US is included as well as all in-country transportation, all lodgings, eight safari game drives, and 18 meals. An additional tax of $195 is added to this one. Places visited include Mt. Kenya Forest, Shaba National Reserve, Lake Nakuru National Park, Maasai Mara National Reserve
Traveling Independently in Africa
In just the past three months, the South African rand has fallen some 18% against the dollar, making costs on the ground significantly cheaper in that country. Even before that happened hotels were having trouble filling their rooms, thanks to the hotel building boom that preceded the World Cup last year. This is now a destination that is saturated with beds, so watch out for 3-for-the-price-of-2-night sales and other discount promotions whenever you're booking hotels.

Recent violence against European tourists is also scaring many visitors away from Kenya and depressing the prices there. It should be noted that the assaults occurred in resort areas nowhere near the Maasai Mara and the other safari parks mentioned in this piece (its a good half-day drive to get from the trouble areas to these wilderness areas). But, as always in these cases, do your own research before booking. I'd recommend looking at the consular travel advisory sites for the US State Department, as well as the travel warnings of the British Government.

Another Resource
The New York Times recently covered the topic of dropping prices in Africa, and while I was confused by their focus on only the most expensive of safaris (ones costing $400/day and up without airfare), there's still some valuable information in the piece. Click here to read it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Airfares Up, Likeability Down

The American Customer Satisfaction Index has just been released. As always it reveals not only the companies that score kudos but the ones consumers loathe. The results are an aggregate of thousands of customer satisfaction and other types of surveys, and the results ain't good for the airline industry. Taking the #2 and #3 spot, ABOVE the hated Bank of America, are Delta and American Airlines. Wow, to be hated more the bank that wants to charge customers for using debit cards? That's some dubious achievement.

Probably won't help their likeability that the airlines have raised their rates for the second time this week. According to the Associated Press, unpopular Delta was the first to increase fares by between $4 and $10 for domestic routes. United and Continental quickly matched. If Southwest matches, the increases will likely stick.

After another quarter in the red, these increases show investors that the airlines are trying to become profitable. What they show consumers is that they'd better book soon, especially for holiday flights, or they could be paying much, much more to get home to see Grandma.

Some advice:
  • Domestic sales tend to pop late on Mondays, so book travel on Tuesday or Wednesday when the other airlines match. Try not to book on a weekend as that's when fares increase (the airlines know consumers use their time away from work to research and book fares.They see an uptick in the number of bookings and respond with upticks in pricing).
  • Don't assume two one-way tickets will be more expensive than a round-trip. That's not always the case nowadays (so search for those, too)
  • Alas, non-stops are often pricier these days. If you need to save, consider spending some time along the way in an airport
  • Be flexible on dates and airports, as it could pay off bigtime.
  • Get the broadest search possible with such sites as, and
I'm actually NOT an airline hater. While I dislike their habit of adding extra fees and hiding real prices from consumers, I find that their staffs generally are well-trained, friendly and polite. Most are doing very hard jobs with dignity and good humor. The economics of the business have been very hard for quite some time, what with the ever fluctuating cost of fuel, plus scares and recessions that keep people at home. I wish them well, but I still don't want to pay too much for tickets, and I don't want you, dear reader, to do so either.

Monday, October 24, 2011

G Adventures Expands Into Its Own Backyard

Seems like its recent name change from Toronto-based GAP Adventures to simply "G Adventures" hasn't slowed down the folks at that trailblazing company. They've decided to rectify a situation that has puzzled many of their fans over the years: their lack of North American touring options.

Death Valley (Photo by John Bruckman)

That changed this week when G unveiled its addition of some 56 tours in North America (11 in Canada, the rest in the US). There will be excursions for those who like to rough it and pay less (Overland Road Trips, on which participants camp out); nature-oriented tours with a big adventure component to them (Active Escapes), and more usual, hotel-based itineraries (Classic Escapes). On all three, the groups will be small, with just 8 to 13 people each, and as with their tours in Asia, Africa and Europe, G Adventures expects to host an international clientelle.

So what are the prices like? They seem to be, thankfully, in line with the affordable trips G Adventures sponsors in other parts of the globe. As an example, an 8-day trip through the American West (Yosemite, the California Coast, Las Vegas, Death Valley, etc.) clocks in at just $949. A lollapalooza of a road trip from New Orleans to San Francisco is $1949 for 16 days.

For more information, click here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Freebie Friday: The 2012 Dates When Entrance Fees Will Be Waived At Our National Parks

Balancing Rock At Arches National Park
Get out your calendars. This week the National Park's free admission days for next year were announced and there will be 17 in all.

As in 2011, these are sure to be extra delightful days on which to visit these national treasures. And that's not only because of the cost savings (which, to be fair, isn't that great: at most $20 per carload of visitors, less at other parks). But during these holiday periods, the Parks put on special workshops, Ranger-led walks and talks and other events to keep the crowds happy.

Drumroll, please. In 2012, entrance fees will be ditched on:
  • Martin Luther King, Jr Weekend (Jan 14-16)
  • National Park Week (April 21-29)
  • Get Outdoors Day (June 29)
  • National Public Lands Day (Sept 29)
  • Veteran's Day Weekend (Nov 10-12)
Have a wonderful weekend all! (And if you're in Atlanta, be sure to stop by the Atlanta Travel and Adventure Show. As I mentioned earlier in the week, I'll be giving two speeches there this Saturday).

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Government Giveaways That Help Travelers Save Hundreds of Dollars

Free cultural exchanges in Berlin? You betcha!
Earlier in the week I told you about the remarkable contest the Costa Rican government is sponsoring; it will give several hundred travelers nearly free weeklong vacations.

Would you believe that that's just one of MANY ways that governments around the world are reaching out to encourage tourism (and keep their constituents employed)?

I recently wrote a very detailed, long article on the topic for Bing Travel. Rather than repeat what I said here, I'll simply ask that you follow this link.

I think you'll find it helpful!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

An Invitation For Those Of You Who Live in Atlanta, Plus Some News Items

Atlanta (Photo by Jesse Budlong)
I'm writing this from LaGuardia Airport where I'm waiting to fly the only non-delayed plane this morning (yikes, I hope I didn't just jinx it). I'm headed to Atlanta, where I'll be appearing this Saturday at the Atlanta Travel and Adventure Show. I'll be speaking at 11:30 (on when to scrimp and when to splurge on travel) and at 2:30 (on travel trends). In between, the lovely and charming Samantha Brown of the Travel Channel will take the stage. And off the stage there will be adventures galore from rock climbing walls, to ziplines to a scuba diving tank. A final unusual touch: along with all of the travel sellers (cruise lines, tour operators, tourist boards) on the floor, there will also be a conference on "Faith Based Travel" taking place at the event.

Long story short: it should be a good time and I'd love to meet readers of this blog there!

We can discuss such interesting travel items as:
  • The increase in holiday airfares.  They've been up, they've been down, surcharges have been eliminated and reinstated. What a crazy scene its been this year, but it all boils down to: if you don't book your air tickets soon, you're going to be paying a lot more than you should. Some experts are predicting an uptick of $5 for every day you procrastinate, starting next week.
  • Cannibals eating tourists! Not surprisingly the government of French Polynesia is now denying that a German tourist who is missing was the last meal of the guide he hired. I don't want to say much more on the subject, though the article is quite interesting. 
  • Airline's queasiness over new taxes results in unusual advertisingIt sounds like a story from The Onion, but its true. The Air Transport Association is giving out barf bags through its member airlines to protest new taxes on passengers and airlines to support airline security. The bags say in bold letters "Sick of Taxes?"with a large arrow pointing to the opening of the bag. Frankly, I think passengers and airlines should bear more of the burden of the security they're using (its a system that's worked well in Europe), but I gotta give the airline industry points for creativity.
That's it for now as my flight will be called in any minute. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sales and More Sales On Air Tickets

The headline of this blog says it all. A slew of airlines are briefly dropping their prices this week, including:

Direct Air: 50% off its flights to and from a number of secondary gateways.
And because those gateways are under-served the savings are particularly heartening, as they come with direct flights. As an example, the cheapest fare you'll get between Springfield (IL) and Myrtle Beach is $367 round-trip on Delta, for an itinerary that takes three flights EACH WAY. Do it with Direct Air and you may snag a $129 round-trip. Use the code YLXEM to get the savings.

JetBlue: Flights from $44 each way, and all the blue potato chips you can snarf.
Book by the end of the day tomorrow for travel between Oct 25 and Dec 15 (but not including the Thanksgiving holiday).

WestJet: Move quickly Canadians! This sale has to be booked today, but if you can make your plans that fast there are good discounts to be had on Monday through Wednesday (and Saturday) flights between a number of cities, including Calgary and Montreal ($318 round-trip). Fly through March 17 at the lower rates.

Southwest and AirTran: In lockstep, parent and child are offering a 72 hour sale which  expires end of day on Thursday. Among the impressive discounts are Newark to Cleveland for $70 round-trip (on Southwest) and Columbus to Kansas City for $130 round-trip (on Air Tran).

Virgin America: Fly bathed in purple light to Palm Springs or Puerta Vallarta, the airlines latest two gateways. Fares are currently being discounted for both gateways for those who purchase before Oct 23, and fly between mid-December and mid-March (all details are on the site; in some cases, the discount only applies on certain days of the week).

That's all for today, folks!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Costa Rica's Impressive Vacation Give Away

Costa Rica was recently named the "happiest country in the Americas" by the New Economic Foundation's Happy Planet Index. (Scoring consisted of judging country's quality of life, carbon footprint and life expectancy for their citizens.)

Happiness, like misery, loves company, it seems. How else to explain the fact that the Costa Rican government has set aside $1 million to give away free vacations to its North American neighbors?

Photo by J McMichael
 Unlike Japan, which is also currently contemplating giving away some 10,000 free air tickets-- no doubt to offset the 70% drop in tourism it experienced after its earthquake and subsequent nuclear reactor problems last March-- Costa Rican tourism is booming.  According to government sources, the country welcomed nearly 1.2 million visitors in the first six months of 2011, a new record and an increase of of 6.5 percent over the last four years' numbers.

But why look a gift horse in the mouth (or should a say a gift Quetzal in the beak)? The giveaway is going to get some 300 visitors to Costa Rica over the next several months for free weeklong vacations! Well, almost free. Visitors will have to pay for most food and drinks, and will have to pay the country's exit tax ($26). But still, its a tremendous steal.

Most of the vacations are being given away through Costa Rica's Facebook page, at the rate of one vacation, good for two people, per weekday through Feb 5, 2012. Contestants must first "like" the country, which gives Costa Rica access to their basic FB info as well as the right to post status updates, notes, photos and videos on their walls. Then, they can enter the daily sweepstakes.

The government will also be giving away additional vacations through Twitter, prominent travel blogs (not this one, though; I don't enter into those sort of arrangements with this blog) and popular news outlets.

A final word: the weeklong vacations being given away (which include airfare from major US hubs, hotels, ground transportation and guided tours) come in five flavors. Winners will be allowed to choose from light or extreme adventure trips, trips that offer a quick overview of the country's highlights, romantic weeks and week's that focus of Costa Rica's culture.

If you want more information about the contest without "liking" Costa Rica's Facebook page, click here.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free B&B Stays for Veterans

Photo by Loren Javier
Are ex-Navy Seals partial to blueberry pancakes and doilies? Let's hope so because they, and all other veterans of the armed forces here in the US and Canada, are being offered free stays by B&Bs across North America (with the exception of Mexico). Appropriately enough, the freebies are for the night before Veterans Day (November 10).

This is the third year that the program will run. Approximately 900 B&B's in the US will be participating, along with 100 in Canada. To find out which Inns and B&Bs are opening their doors in this fashion, click here

Veterans interested in a free stay are asked to contact the B&B that interests them directly to book a room. They must show proof of service upon arrival.

Happy Veterans Day all!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Next Week's the Week to Book Your Next Cruise

The week of October 17 is "National Save for Retirement Week", "National Medical Assistants Week", "Celebrate Caterers Week", and "Celebrate Teen Reading Week."

Photo by Dawn Endico

Hopefully you won't be too busy forcing your teen to pick up a book, checking your IRA, or taking your local caterer (or physicians assistant) to lunch so that you can take note of the fact that its also "National Cruise Vacation Week". And that "holiday" is being feted in a much more tangible way than the others: all 25 of the major cruise operators--from mass volume ocean-going cruise companies, to river cruise operators, to luxury mega-yacht enterprises--are offering discounts and perks. These range from cash back deals, to percentages off the initial price to such niceties as cabin upgrades and shipboard credits.

To get the complete scoop, head to, the home of the Cruise Line Industry Association. Come Monday, it will host a wealth of links and information for all the bargains.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Plea for Less Restrictive US Visas

Several years ago, I interviewed a fellow who ran furniture shows in different markets across the United States. Dealers and manufacturers from all over the world attended these expos; at them deals were forged, products bought and sold and jobs created.

Sadly, after 9/11 his business cratered, the number of attendees at his show having dived by a full third. The problem wasn't a fear of terrorism or a downturn in the furniture market but the inability of international manufacturers to obtain visas and get to the shows.

I asked how that could be and he gave, as an example, the problem of businessmen in Brazil. At that time, there was only one Visa-giving embassy in that vast country, located in Sao Paulo. While Sao Paulo is a big center for furniture construction, it was rivaled by other areas of the country (such as Brazil's southernmost state Rio Grande do Sul) which were thousands of miles,hours by plane, from the capital. Businesspeople in these areas, in order to head to the United States, had to fly to Sao Paulo and stay in a hotel. If that wasn't expense enough, visa applicants were required to leave their passports behind for processing, picking them up when ready (and apparently it could sometimes be several days before they were ready). With the cost of domestic air, and a several nights stay in a Sao Paulo hotel, many simply ditched the idea of attending and took their business elsewhere.

The situation hasn't improved much since then, which is why I was heartened to hear that a bi-partisan bill is currently being considered that would ease visa restrictions. Introduced by tourism caucus co-chairs Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), the new regulations would allow previous visa-holders to forego the required in-person interview, if they apply for another visa within four years of obtaining their first one. The bill would also allow the State Department to re-allocate the money from visa fees to allow the hiring for more personnel in areas that most need it. And the Congress is asking the State Department to make particular efforts for improving the visa application process in India, China and yes, Brazil, areas with huge demands (and, in the past, huge waits for visas).

By some estimates, 1 out of every 11 Americans work in the travel industry in some capacity, whether at hotels, airports, trains, parks or restaurants that tourists support. So the visa issue goes well beyond the needs of business travelers. In the decade since 9/11 we've welcomed thousands fewer international tourists than we could have, and that, in turn, has lost this country hundreds of jobs.

Contact your representative today (go to or and let them know you support more intelligent, flexible visa policies. For the sake of our economy, ask them to support the International Tourism Facilitation Act.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Japan (Probably) To Give Away 10,000 Air Tickets to Foreigners

The Japanese National Tourist Organization made a whopper of an announcement yesterday. In an effort to revive its crippled tourism industry (down some 70% since the earthquake and subsequent nuclear power plant problems last March), it is petitioning the government to make available funds for a ticket giveaway. At this stage, it has said its seeking some 1.1 billion yen (approximately $150 million dollars) to fund the purchase of 10,000 tickets for foreign visitors.

Photo by Marc Veraart
Beyond the direct infusion of cash this giveaway will give to the country's hoteliers, restauranteurs, tour companies and other organizations that cater to tourists, the promotion will be a major PR coup. Those requesting tickets will have to fill out online forms, apparently viewable by all comers, about why they want to visit the Land of the Rising Sun. They may also be asked to fill out questionnaires giving suggestions on how Japan can drum up more visitations.

Keep an eye on the JNTO website for complete information. No details have been given out yet as to when the applications will be due, though travel will apparently be for 2012 and not 2011. Those who accept the tickets will also be expected to post online reviews of their experiences after they return.

So is Japan safe? The US government thinks so. Just last week it downgraded its warning, saying that the only area citizens shouldn't enter is the zone within 20 km of the crippled Fukishimi Daiishi nuclear power plant (so Tokyo, Kamakura, Mount Fuji and Kyoto, the country's major touristic destinations, are all fine). To read the complete State Department statement, click here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Freebie Friday: Four Giveaways from Four Points by Sheraton

Let me start this post with a warning/disclaimer: no hotel freebie is actually free if the hotel room you're renting is so much pricier than the surrounding options that you're  losing money by staying there. So before you take advantage of Four Points "Four for Free Giveaway" make sure you're getting a decent deal on the room rate.

Granted, that's often doable with Four Points, a very comfortable, indeed stylish, midrange brand that's part of the Starwood family of properties. And with its current offer (which runs through the end of the year) guests will get a free continental breakfast, a free appetizer, free Wifi and free bottle of water when they check in. Hey, its  better than a kick in the pants.

The offer is good at participating Four Points by Sheraton properties, all of which are listed at the link above.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Great Travel Writers Reveal Their Favorite Travel Books

Where to go? Its the most fundamental and yet, often, the most difficult question to solve when planning a vacation.

A strategy I've used in the past has been to read up on various places before deciding. And though it may seem out of character, considering my last name, I don't read guidebooks during this initial process. Instead, I turn to travel memoirs and (sometimes) books of history. When I've hit upon one that inspires me, I then look at the guidebook to plan the concrete details of my trip.

Finding good travel memoirs, however, can be tricky. Often they're the literary equivalent of watching someone's very long-winded and not very insightful slideshow on their last vacation. Which is why I was so pleased to stumble across a recent article in London's Guardian, in which well-respected current travel writers were asked to reveal which books and authors most inspired them.

Some of their favorites were already mine--Pico Iyer, Ian Frazier and Jan Morris make the list (not surprisingly). But so do more obscure writers and writers who are better known in other genres, such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, Apsley Cherry-Garard, and Henry Miller.

To read the list, and more importantly, the descriptions of these authors' work, click on the link above.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mom's Russian River Cruise

She's back!

Though I'm guessing she's still wishing she was in Russia. Apparently, the river cruise was the trip of a lifetime.

All of her--and my--worries proved to be unfounded. The ship, a Russian-owned and operated vessel, proved to be just fine, with good food and a dedicated, well-trained staff (with the exception of her excursions leader, who she thought was disorganized. My guess? Mom's right. Apparently this woman kept losing tourists at the sites!).

Red Square (photo by ThisIsBossi)
Would she have done some things differently? Yes.

She believes her first mistake was not scheduling days, both before and after the trip, to tour Moscow and St. Petersburg on her own. With only the day and a half of tours scheduled with the cruiseline, she left feeling that she'd given these fascinating cities short shrift.

She also regretted having paid more to get a double cabin to herself. She was told by the agent that the singles cabins were claustrophobicly small. But she saw some aboard, and wished she'd saved the several hundred dollars she'd spent for more spacious digs. The singles were just fine, she felt. The lesson there: get actual measurements. The taste of an agent may not reflect your own taste (and sometimes, dare I say it, the fact that their commission is a percentage of the sale price may also come into play).

One excellent decision Mom made came on the first night, when she impulsively sat down with a group of Australian travelers. Turned out, the seat you picked for the first night was your assigned seat for the rest of the sailing. But the Aussies were marvelous: witty, friendly, a bit bawdy, great dinner companions. The next lesson? I guess it must be: sit with Australians if you can, as they're almost always the most fun!

She's eager to take another river cruise, having discovered that most onboard were her age, and moved at much the same pace. She loved the social nature of the experience, and the ability to mix visits with very famous cities, with smaller, quirky little communities that just happen to be along the way.

Whew! I guess I did okay helping her book this one.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sticking to a Diet on Your Next Cruise? Its Not An Impossible Goal

I recently partnered with Weight Watchers on an article about how to cruise light.

Its not an easy task.

And though many folks will give general tips ("take the stairs", "order carefully at the buffets", etc.) the truth is, one is much more likely to indulge on some cruise lines than others. It has to do with everything from the "devil may care" atmosphere on board to the huge diameter of the buffet plates on certain lines (are you listening Carnival?). Conversely on some ships healthy living is celebrated, the gyms are larger than the norm and the clientelle more active so its easier to "be good" without feeling like you're ruining your vacation.

Working on the piece, I interviewed a number of cruise experts and cruise line officials; compared the various "heart healthy" menus; and perused stats on onboard gyms. I think the result is a darn useful article for those hoping NOT to gain a pound a day on their next cruise (an average amount, according to many in the know).

To read the complete piece, click here.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ski Savings on the Radar: Act Soon To Take Advantage of Some Real Deals

(Photo by Juan Carvajal)
Only a few dedicated bunnies and bums are thinking about ski season right now. Oh yeah, and ski resort executives, who are eager to sign up schussers before anyone knows how much snow the coming season will hold.

If you're willing to take that chance, and you're enough of a dedicated skier to purchase a season pass, doing so before Halloween (or at least before Thanksgiving), can often yield savings of as much as 50% off the regular rates.

Early season discounts are listed at the individual sites of the ski resorts, obviously. But a good shortcut to the best downhill deals can be found at the website

In addition, Starwood Hotels (which includes Westin, Sheraton, Four Points, aloft, W, and a number of other brands) is offering a package that couples free lift tickets with hotel stays at a number of their near-the-slopes properties (including the Westin that's in Mammoth Lakes). Most details vary by property, but there is one commonality: an Oct 7 deadline on all these deals. If you're interested in staying at Starwood property for your next ski vacation, go quickly to the site of that specific hotel to see if its participating in this offer (some are, some aren't).